Winter is when Alaska is at its best. The snow simplifies the scenery and makes it even more beautiful. The outdoor activities are superb: cross-country and downhill skiing, snowmobiling, ice-skating, and dog mushing. The people are especially hospitable, since visitors are rare, and the towns are alive with festivals, sled-dog races, and authentic cultural events -- not just tourist stuff. There's also a very good chance you will see the northern lights.
Day 1: Anchorage Festivals & Sled-Dog Races
To enjoy Anchorage fully, rent a car when you arrive. If you have planned your trip for late February or early March, you can be here when Anchorage is alive with the Fur Rendezvous Festival, with its dozens of events and World Championship Sled Dog Race, and the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which starts its journey across Alaska to Nome right after the festival. Local cultural institutions will be busy, too: Visit the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center during the day and catch a performance in the evening at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts.
Day 2: Anchorage Cross-Country Skiing
If you've never tried cross-country skiing, Anchorage is an excellent place to give it a go. If you do ski, you can enjoy some of the nation's best trails here in many settings and varying difficulty levels, and with grooming that's world class. There are no trail fees. The very best trail system is at Kincaid Park. If you don't want to ski, Anchorage also has groomed ice-skating ponds; Westchester Lagoon has more than a kilometer of skating trails. At the end of the day, drive 40 miles to the Hotel Alyeska in Girdwood for the night. You will find two of Alaska's best restaurants to choose from for dinner: Seven Glaciers and Double Musky Inn.
Day 3: Girdwood Downhill Skiing
Spend the day on the slopes of Alyeska Resort, skiing near sea level, but mostly above the tree line, and with extraordinary ocean views from the slopes and lifts. Those who don't want to ski have enough to do: swimming in the saltwater pool at the hotel, visiting the spa or shops, or skating on the outdoor rink at the base of the mountain.
Day 4: Girdwood to Fairbanks
Drive to Anchorage and return the car. If you have time, take the Alaska Railroad, which runs a single-car train once a week from Anchorage to Fairbanks; it's a spectacular and uniquely Alaskan ride. The most practical route is to fly from Anchorage to Fairbanks and rent another car when you arrive. That will leave you with most of the day to explore the town, including the downtown attractions and, if possible, the World Ice Art Championships.
Day 5: Museum of the North & Dog Mushing
The UA Museum of the North will engage your mind and imagination with galleries that mix art, anthropology, and science in unique and surprising ways. This is also the best place anywhere to learn about the aurora. Make a point of going for a dog-sled ride while you're here, too, with Sun Dog Express Dog Sled Tours or one of the many other operators giving rides; Fairbanks is a center for the sport, with limitless miles of trails in the hilly boreal forest that extends in every direction.
Day 6: Chena Hot Springs Resort
Drive a little more than an hour into the Bush for a visit to the hot springs, a unique resort (for example, one of the buildings is made entirely of ice) nestled in the rounded mountains of winter. Chena Hot Springs Resort has its flaws, but the experience of floating in a pond of hot artesian water on a day when the air around is below zero more than makes up for them. If you want to do more than soak, lots of activities are available, including snowmobiling and dog mushing. After dark, step outside for the unsurpassed aurora viewing out here, beyond city lights.
Day 7: Fairbanks
Today you can take one more swim or ski run before returning your car in Fairbanks and returning home by air.
Doubling Up the Seasons
Here's a little-known approach to experiencing the best of Alaska: Arrive in late March and head to Homer, on the south end of the Kenai Peninsula, as an add-on to the above winter itinerary. The community has lengthy and spectacular cross-country ski trails that usually have plenty of snow all month. At the same time, salmon fishing gets started in March in the waters of Kachemak Bay -- there's even a fishing derby joined by hundreds of boats. You can go salmon fishing in the morning and ski in the afternoon!
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.